If you needed a visual representation of the rivalry between Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, then the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards delivered it. There, the two singers took to the stage in near identical provocative bridal wear and performed similar, but not identical, choreography to each other. Madonna, dressed as a groom, stole a kiss from both and marched across the stage arm and arm with each, at the same time. All queer-baiting controversy aside, the subtext of the performance also appeared to suggest a cultural truism that had sat heavy on the careers of both artists for some time. Just as Madonna, the groom, would have surely been forced to pick only one of the two brides to actually wed, Spears and Aguilera were also pitted against each other on a cultural level, too. It was as though there was only enough space in the world for us all to enjoy the talents of either singer, at any one time.
In the years leading up to the performance, tensions had been building regarding the way in which the world responded to and viewed both singers. In 2001, Spears released "I'm A Slave 4 U," a breathless, come hither wink of a song accompanied by a sweaty, writhing mass of a video which announced in the songs lyrics that Spears was no longer a "little girl." The then 19 year-old singer was ready to leave "behind her name and age," and the world was ready to experience it. Reviews for the song, video, and Britney, the album it featured on, were mostly positive, rather than shocked. Such as this NME review of "I'm A Slave 4 U" which gushed, "the song is funk the way God intended —hypnotic, insistent, mysterious, suggestive— and if Prince was a nineteen-year-old former Disney Club host and virgin, he'd be proud to create such a record."
However, just a year later in 2002, Aguilera's similar attempt at a more adult offering, "Dirrrty," received a sexist backlash almost immediately. The singer was dragged for her appearance in the song's video, with one reviewer calling her "the world’s skeeziest reptile woman." Meanwhile the way in which Aguilera was enjoying, exploring, and exhibiting her sexuality in the song and video also garnered criticism, in ways that Spears had not received. The BBC, for instance, lamented that the singers "sweet innocence is long gone," remarking that Aguilera lacked "the class of Destiny's Child or Aaliyah."
Spears and Aguilera's respective songs may have sounded different, but they both shared the same underlying message of sexual maturity, and music videos of an equal standard of provocation. However, while Spears was celebrated for her choices, Aguilera was vilified, and part of the reasoning for that feels linked to how the two singers were played-off against each other in the media.
It's worth noting that both singers grew up together on the set of the Mickey Mouse Club, and that their debut albums were released only seven months apart from each other. With a history so irrevocably linked, it seemed natural that comparisons between Spears and Aguilera would exist. Especially so when you consider that the Lolita-esque, schoolgirl outfits of the "...Baby One More Time," video were just as controversial for their implied sexuality as the innuendo-laced lyrics for "Genie In A Bottle," were. These were two teenage girls being marketed to a mature, male gaze, and they were being forced to compete for those attentions.
However, despite their shared background and superficial similarities, the two singers actually shared little else in common to make such competition feel logical. The two singers differed musically, with Spears' sound tackling bubblegum pop rather than Aguilera's smoky, R&B hits, and their voices were remarkably different too. Aguilera arguably had the stronger vocal, with a shattering range that couldn't be compared with Spears' animated, and character infused vocal-fry. As a 1999 article by The Guardian suggested, the two also had images at opposite ends of a troubling "teen erotica," spectrum, with the publication stating, "Christina has a 'naughtier' image than Britney's corn-fed, Midwest, wholesome look."
And it was exactly these sorts of comparisons that sowed the seeds of the rivalry between the two stars, pitching them as it did at complete odds with each other. Described in 2001 as being both "America’s reigning taboo temptress," and "America's most famous virgin," by Entertainment Weekly, Spears was representative of wholesome, American values. And as such, it made her a respectable object of desire in the manner with which the singer was marketed in music videos and photo shoots.
By comparison, Aguilera had made no such similar statements about saving herself for marriage, but was still marketed as a teenage vixen in the same ways that Spears was. As Elizabeth Wurtzel once stated in The Guardian, this meant that, Aguilera, "has none of the Britney charm, none of the sugar, none of the southern honey." As a result, it could be argued that the conceit of Spears' sexuality was represented in a much sweeter, more palatable way for the American public to enjoy than Aguilera's was.
The specifics of this rivalry is one that has been a mainstay of cultural tropes for decades. It lands somewhere within the prism of the madonna-whore complex, a term first coined by Sigmund Freud, as a distinction men draw between the women they desire, and the women they respect. As a cultural trope, it meant that a young woman like Spears, though still desirable, was seen as being virtuous and possessing a higher social value because of her perceived purity. On the other side of that, however, it meant that Aguilera failed to live up to the conceit of Spears' apparent moral standards, especially while the two were seemingly forced to be in competition with each other.
On another level, the rivalry between the two also reflects a societal expectation that two women cannot co-exist with each other without being in direct competition with another. And interestingly enough, it's also a trope that we can see continuing in modern music today. You can see it in the extended feud between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, two artists with incredibly different musical outputs and personas to each other who are nonetheless regularly compared, contrasted, and put in opposition to each other. Like Spears and Aguilera, Swift has often been portrayed as being the all-American, virtuous good girl to Perry's more brazen expression of femininity. Something which once led Perry to notoriously warn, "watch out for the Regina George in sheep's clothing," in a subtweet thought to be about Swift.
Even more recently, a rumored feud between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B has been making headlines for similar reasons. In an interview with Complex, Cardi said about the rivalry, "I feel like people just want that drama because it's entertaining," while Minaj reprimanded society's obsession for feuding female artists in a since deleted tweet, and said "these are men in our culture who simply refuse to let it go. They don’t do this to male M.C.’s."
Following the notorious 2003 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, the tension between Spears and Aguilera went from being implicit to being made tangible with the feud exploding within the pages of two issues of Blender magazine. In December 2003, Aguilera said of Spears' alleged behavior at the Awards show, "Every time I tried to start a conversation with her — well, let's just say she seemed nervous the whole time. ... She seems to me like a lost little girl, someone who desperately needs guidance." In January 2004, Spears responded by saying, "I can't believe Christina said that about me ... A lost girl? I think it's probably the other way around," and related a story about how Aguilera tried to kiss Spears in a club, once.
For years the two would continue to exchange cheap shots at each other. However, in an interview with The Daily Mail in 2008, Aguilera revealed that though the two weren't close, the competition between them may have blown out of proportion. "When we both started releasing records, it was a funny time for me. It must have seemed as if we were competing with each other, but, in reality, Britney is someone that I used to hold hands with," Aguilera explained. "We were silly little girls together on the Mickey Mouse Club... I don't pass any judgment on what she does. I always wish her all the best."
Clearly, there was always more than enough room for both artists to thrive and to express themselves in their own particular way without there being any need to draw comparisons between the two. To this day, female musicians continue to be pitted against each other in the same way, and honestly, it needs to stop. There's really no room for women to be forced into competition with each other, but there's plenty of space for women to express themselves however they want or need to, without facing toxic comparisons to anyone else.